J. V. Durden and the Developmental Biology Film Series

Recently I have been updating some of the biographical sections on this site, and have been expanding the information on J. V. Durden, one of the key figures on the Secrets team in the 1930s, who directed many of the G.B.I. instructional films in biology. You can read the updated biographical page here, although please bear in mind that I’m constantly updating much of this information at the moment as I continue to build the site.

My research has taken me far beyond my usual remit in terms of time and place – to Canada in the 1950s, and to the US in the 1960s. In this post I want to focus on the latter part of Durden’s life, that which pertains to the time he spent in Boston. In 1962, Durden was employed by Educational Services, Inc. (later renamed Educational Development Centre). This outfit had been established to continue the work of the Physical Science Study Commission (PSSC), which had developed a national curriculum in the physical sciences aimed at stimulating US science education. ESI, and later EDC, continued and expanded this work, producing educational materials for use in science teaching across the country, including films. Although the PSSC focussed on Physics, ESI had a much broader remit. It received funding from the National Science Foundation, which during the Cold War sought to address a perceived weakness in scientific education in the US curriculum.

In Boston, Durden worked on a series of films that were released under the title ‘Developmental Biology Film Series’, which I recently found out have been digitized and are available to view on YouTube. These were highly specialist films, usually supervised by an expert biologist, who wished to replicate on film what they had witnessed under the microscope. In most of these films, Durden is listed as ‘Director/Cinemicrographer’, and in one of them, Morphogenesis in a Marine Alga: Caulerpa, he also provided the narration. You can view this film below:

The films have a remarkable visual power, filmed as they are in full colour, revealing in intricate detail the unusual and surprising microscopic growth, development and reproduction of algae, single-celled protists or marine slime mold. Above all, they are images that throughly challenge our understandings of these organisms are meant to behave, from the growth of metres-long single-celled algae, to the transformation of Naegleria, which can shift between two-forms, a simple amoeba-like blob, and a flagellated organism that propels itself across the screen with great speed. One of the most astonishing films in the series, Aggregation of Dissociated Sponge Cells, shows something which, to most viewers, is surely utterly inconceivable: a handful of sponge cells, cut clean from each other, are shown regrouping and slowly clumping together into a single mass. This film reminds me of a scene at the end of Terminator 2, where the shapeshifting T-1000 is blasted into tiny pieces, only for his mercury-like shards to slowly rejoin, amassing once more into a single machine.

The DBFS films were digitized in 2017 by the Library at UMass Amherst, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign inspired by the scientist Lynn Margulis. Margulis, who revolutionised the field of cell biology with her controversial thesis on symbiogenesis, and co-conceived the Gaia hypothesis, argued that the DBFS films had a transformative influence on scientific research. Margulis who took an interest in production of the DBFS films while a graduate student, making them a central component of her ‘Environmental Evolution’ course at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She began teaching the course in 1972, and she was still using the films in her teaching in 2010. When she collaborated with the director Terrence Malick on the film The Tree of Life (2011), she requested that the unused production hours at Post Logic Studios were spent restoring and digitising the DBFS films. The films were otherwise only available on 16mm film reels, which are liable to degrade over time.

Recently, I’ve been in touch with James MacAlister, who has worked hard to raise awareness about these films, and co-ordinated the crowdfunding campaign. I’m keen to learn more about the films and the processes they describe: not only are they an exquisite example of the collaboration in scientific filmmaking between researchers and expert cinematographers like Durden, but they also demonstrate a clear continuity, in style and content, with the Secrets of Nature series.

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